So You Want to Be a Cruise Ship Lecturer?

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You may think that being a guest lecturer on a cruise ship is a dream job. I know that's what I thought when I first started giving shipboard presentations on astronomy 12 years ago.

It's not a bad gig, for sure; you travel the world, sometimes sailing to exotic places you otherwise never would visit. Your cabin is made up twice a day by an attentive steward. You can eat your fill of satisfying or -- even better -- gourmet fare around the clock (delivered directly to your stateroom if you wish) and never need to cook, or wash a dish. You might work three hours a week and have people applaud at the end of every hour.

Because all types of cruise lines use guest speakers, it's also a great way to experience the gamut of cruising styles. I've given presentations aboard large ships (Celebrity, Holland America, Princess, Royal Caribbean) and small ships (including a transatlantic voyage on a 177-foot, three-masted motor yacht for Travel Dynamics International), luxury ships (Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Silversea) and spartan excursion vessels (Cruise West) that sail to places larger ships could never go. I've traveled in all kinds of accommodations, even on the same cruise line (including Queens Grill, commoner and staff accommodations on Cunard), and dined with companions wearing tuxedos (Crystal), cruisers in "country club casual" togs (Oceania) and those who were shirtless (Windjammer Barefoot).

But, if your idea of a job includes getting a paycheck, you'll quickly realize that working as a guest lecturer is not a job at all. Paid guest speakers are a thing of the past, and sometimes, even celebrities only get airfare and a guest suite. In fact, many presenters pay out of pocket for the privilege of lecturing onboard.

If you want to be a cruise ship lecturer, you have to face the fact that guest speakers are among the few people aboard who are working for the ship without being paid. (Folks do come up with creative ways to make money off the cruise; I've seen authors sell copies of their books onboard, and travel photographers and writers use the trips to gain affordable shooting and research opportunities.)

That said, if you're a dynamic speaker with knowledge and passion about a topic, lecturing on a cruise ship can be a great way to educate people while you explore the world. But, guest lecturing should not be seen as an easy path to a free cruise. Nor should the lack of payment make you think that it's an easy gig anyone can do. You'll need talent and skill to stand out in the competitive hiring process. Rank amateurs need not apply.

The Ins and Outs of Guest Lecturers

Specialized talent agencies and the cruise lines that use them put hundreds of guest speakers on passenger ships every year. These speakers generally fall into two categories: destination lecturers, who present topics related to the ship's itinerary; and enrichment lecturers (also called special-interest lecturers), who may talk about anything else the cruise line thinks the passengers will find interesting.

Duties typically include giving two or three 45-minute presentations a week; guest lecturers are typically not called on to host dinner tables or assist with other shipboard programs.

Destination lecturers are usually in demand about twice as much as enrichment lecturers, and may cover many aspects of a region's recent and ancient history, politics, arts and culture, geography or even its wildlife and food and wine.

On the other hand, enrichment lecturers cover countless subjects -- forensics is a hot topic these days, thanks to the popularity of "CSI" and other crime dramas, and maritime history is a perennial favorite. Also popular are all manner of presentations dealing with the creative arts, (such as music, film, literature, photography, TV and theater), scientific disciplines from archaeology to zoology, and almost any other topic that can grab the attention of a cruise passenger for an hour -- in short, a range that is intriguing and, at times, even bewildering.

But, this isn't a job that just anyone looking for a free cruise can do. "This is not a program for somebody who wants to go on a discounted cruise and give a few lectures; it's truly for people who have a passion for their subject matter, have an ability to communicate in an educational fashion, in an entertaining fashion," explains Sixth Star Entertainment & Marketing owner Doug Jones, whose company places lecturers onboard ships. "They have to have an expertise, and they have to have the presentation skills."

Jones' last comment is key. It isn't realistic to think that subject mastery is the only requirement for a guest lecturer; the ability to entertain is equally important. This may come as a rude awakening to some educators, even those with long careers speaking in front of captive audiences in their classes. Here's the difference: On a cruise ship, audience members attend lectures out of curiosity and for fun; they don't need to pay attention or take notes in order to pass an exam. They are free to walk out when their interest wanes, and they will -- the casino may be only a few steps away, the lido grill is open most of the day, and there are always other activities and options.

Simon Mitton, an enrichment lecturer and research historian of astronomy at the University of Cambridge, advises, "Lecturers who teach in universities need to bear in mind that passengers have paid a fortune. They expect to be entertained, and if there is educational content that's all to the good. Lecturers need to remember at all times that they are working for the Cruise Director, whose main task is to ensure that the passengers enjoy the cruise."

If you don't have extensive experience speaking in front of groups, you'll be doing yourself and probably everyone else a favor by polishing your skills before you apply for a guest lecture slot. Carol Williams, owner of Posh Talks, another placement agency explains, "People want to see a professional product. You can't read from your notes. You have to know your business."

Active retiree groups and senior centers are often looking for public speakers and could offer both an appreciative audience and a good setting to record a DVD of your presentation. Toastmasters, a service organization dedicated to practicing and improving its members' public speaking skills, may also provide valuable feedback in a friendly and supportive atmosphere.

Know Your Cruise Line

Requirements for speakers can vary appreciably among the different cruise lines. Crystal Cruises tries to have a world affairs lecturer on every cruise, a distinct category no other line mentions (although some, like Silversea, include world affairs experts among their destination lecturers). For a time, NCL used only enrichment speakers with presentations about digital technology, such as computers, the Internet and digital photography.

Lines that court a multi-national passenger base sometimes seek lecturers who can speak multiple languages. Naples-based MSC Cruises looks for guest speakers who can deliver presentations in at least three languages (English, Italian and German), although it makes exceptions when booking personalities for such occasional theme cruises as baseball greats, big band, and culinary voyages. A contact at Royal Caribbean told me the line is looking for Spanish- and Italian-speaking presenters for its European sailings and Portuguese-speaking presenters for its Brazilian season.

And some lines, like Carnival, simply don't use guest lecturers at all. Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen explains, "While we offer a variety of activities, we don't offer guest speakers, as we feel that our current schedule of activities meets our guests' preferences." Carnival believes enrichment and destination presentations wouldn't have the broad-based appeal of activities in its Fun Ashore, Fun Onboard program.

The cruise lines that do hire lecturers also vary in the number of guest lecturers they employ. For example, many of Holland America's presenters are from its Exploration Team partners, including Microsoft, Food & Wine magazine and the Marine Conservation Biology Institute. Celebrity's Celebrity Life program fills about 100 of its 500-plus annual guest lecturer slots with speakers from its partner, the Smithsonian Institute's Smithsonian Journeys. Disney Cruise Line pulls all enrichment lecturers for its Disney Behind the Scenes program from the far corners of the Disney empire, including animators, character artists and chefs from Disney's parks and resorts.

The effect is twofold. First, would-be cruise ship lecturers will find that some lines are hiring fewer outside speakers than they used to. Before November 2008, Holland America hired 200 guest lecturers a year; now it uses about 75 destination and enrichment speakers and only on its transatlantic and long, grand voyages. NCL, which employed 300 special interest and destination lecturers a year up until October 2009, has now moved all of its lecture programs in-house, with cruise directors and assistant cruise directors delivering destination-focused talks.

Second, some onboard presentations touted as informative talks may actually be product pitches, geared at convincing attendees to buy something, such as a shore excursion, a spa treatment or a painting. While in some cases, presenters may be highly knowledgeable speakers, in others, they are providing biased information to aid in their product pitches. But most of the time, these presentations are not given by a guest destination or enrichment lecturer.

How to Apply

For many speakers, the easiest path to becoming a guest lecturer on a cruise ship is through an agency that specializes in such placements. All of the major cruise lines that use destination and enrichment presenters rely on agencies at times, and some use agencies to book a majority of their guest speakers.

For more information on agencies which provide guest speakers to cruise lines, including contact information, click over to Cruise Critic.

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